Initially designated as one of the key members of the commercialized cinéma du look movement, Leos Carax gradually emerged – through a combination of artistic ambition and the indifference of the mainstream – as the truest heir of the French New Wave’s aesthetic gambles and resolutely intimate focus. Emotions run along raw nerves in his films, from early displays of desperate, yearning love to (in the wake of an over-budgeted flop) muted atmospheres of death. Linking the two impulses composes a shameless cinephilic streak that incorporates a dizzying array of cinematic touchstones while offering up enough indelible, original sights to be cited by dozens of the next generation of referential filmmakers.
Carax’s small but vital filmography is the subject of the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s latest retrospective, Modern Love: The Films of Leos Carax. From August 9th through August 15th, all five of the director’s features will be screened, offering viewers the chance to connect with one of the greatest (and, until recently, least remembered) masters of the modern era. Taken as a whole, Carax’s corpus bursts with energy, heartbreak and the acrobatic brute-grace of Denis Lavant, who sprints, tumbles and pines through the director’s work like a force of nature shoved into a body that always looks both younger and older than it really is.
Lavant, like Carax himself, appears deceptively muted in the director’s debut, Boy Meets Girl (Friday, August 9 at 6:30pm), a film that slowly unfurls from the dejected thoughts of Lavant’s army-bound Alex. But vacant nights of inky blacks and blinding white streetlights come alive when Alex hears a woman (Mireille Perrier) being dumped over apartment intercom and falls in love. Boy Meets Girl contains Carax’s various tics in surprisingly developed fashion: condensed nuggets of witty and poetic angst (“The problem with loners is they’re never alone”), vignettes that freely mash up specific references and general eras of film history, and an unpredictable but tightly controlled aesthetic that begs favorable comparisons to early Godard.
The quiet pain of Carax’s debut explodes with Mauvais sang (Saturday, August 10th at 6:00pm), a timely AIDS allegory in the form of a disease that afflicts those who have sex without love. (The young, naturally, suffer disproportionately.) The vague incorporation of science fiction and noir—and the casting of Michel Piccoli—nod toward Godard’s own Alphaville, one of numerous citations both overt and obscure. But the film’s greatest pleasures lie not in its recollections of cinema’s past but in its vivid, of-the-moment imagery. Juliette Binoche picks up Anna Karina’s dropped baton with a shy look at the camera; Julie Delpy’s jilted lover hangs on a subway window for a perilous, frozen second before the Metro speeds off as if it were the TGV; and Lavant’s greaser trashes out his feeling’s for Binoche in a sprint-dance to the David Bowie song that gives this retrospective its title. Physical and emotional death fills every corner, but the longing that gives the film its pain also gives it its blissful releases.
Carax’s latest film, Holy Motors (Saturday, August 10th at 9:15pm), trades in more dour, reflective tones, but fundamentally its juxtaposition of the rapturous with the tragic reflects the same the director’s break-out masterpiece. Where Mauvais sang’s plot distilled itself into a collection of searing images, Holy Motors is directly structured as a series of vignettes, a one-stop sizzle reel for Lavant elasticity gradually revealed as a paean to the death of film as the director understands it. Nevertheless, the film’s assembly as a series of glimpses mirrors its framing images of an Étienne-Jules Marey zoetrope: Whether replicating studio-era musicals with black-comic twists or spoofing the inhumanity of digital effects, Carax’s forlorn gaze backward cannot hide that he comes to praise film, not bury it.
Would that the digital trickery Carax lampoons in his most recent feature existed in 1990, however. Perhaps it would have kept exorbitant costs down on The Lovers on the Bridge (Sunday, August 1 at 4:30pm), which necessitated the building (and rebuilding) of a fake Pont Neuf. The sheer gargantuan folly of it is the film’s greatest asset however, the perfect backdrop for Lavant and Binoche’s homeless lovers as romance and mental illness smear together and become inseparable. The epic scale affords some of Carax’s most whimsical moments, particularly a Bastille Day fireworks celebration enlivened by dips into the blurred vision of Binoche’s half-blind Michèle, but this is also Carax’s most cohesive and minutely observed feature, a patient examination of affirming but toxic love.
The reverberating pain of the troubled production of The Lovers on the Bridge is deeply felt in the totally bleak Pola X (Tuesday, August 13th at 9:00pm), Carax’s only feature without Lavant. Appropriately, Carax vents his frustrations with an adaptation of Herman Melville’s Pierre, a work itself designed to rage against the wan public reception of a magnum opus. Melville’s own scabrous flaunting of form contrasts sharply with an ostensible taming of Carax’s own, but the two works share an open contempt for their audiences and a desire to play into what unadventurous readers/viewers want just long enough to close the trap behind them.
Pola X provides a bleak note on which to end a retrospective of Carax’s work, which may be why Holy Motors will screen a second time after it. By using the first screening of Carax’s latest film to break up the otherwise chronological flow, however, TIFF’s retrospective breaks the movie from its appraisal as an older man’s laments by showing just how well it fits into the context of his filmography. Like the actor who takes on the director’s real name on-screen, Carax’s work has always seemed like that of someone simultaneously younger and older, a melding of extremities that makes all of his features as thrillingly of the moment now as they were upon creation.
Modern Love: The Films of Leos Carax runs from August 9th-15 with Carax participating in special, and very rare, Q&As following the screenings of Mauvais Sang, Holy Motors, and The Lovers on the Bridge. For more information and tickets head to the TIFF website.